Following the abstract jitterbug sequence, Mulholland Drive begins its narrative in full force with a road at night. Rita (Laura Elena Harring) is driven through in a limousine, involved in a collision. Mulholland Drive becomes a place of encounter, forming duality between the Valley and Hollywood. As Lynch describes in an interview with Filmmaker magazine:
[I]t’s a mysterious road. It’s rural in many places. It’s curvy, it’s two lanes, it feels old. It was built long ago, and it hasn’t changed too much. And at night, you ride on top of the world. In the daytime you ride on top of the world too, but it’s mysterious, and there’s a hair of fear because it goes into remote areas. You feel the history of Hollywood in that road.
Mulholland Drive, like so many others, is a film about Los Angeles, and about Hollywood. Lynch drew major inspiration from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film “about Hollywood, but not the whole truth of Hollywood”. In more recent films like La La Land and The Neon Demon (2016), we see the more sinister side of LA’s industry, through Mia’s unsuccessful auditions or Jesse confronting the manipulated, commodified female body. LA is a symbol of a lifestyle and industry.
Lynch injects the city with a sinister character. At night, we see its underworld: its homeless, its lights, the underground Club Silencio. Evoking Koyaanisqatsi (1984), Lynch establishes the city in slow-moving aerial shots, seeing the illusion and anachronism of Hollywood. Until the rise of the studio system in the 1910s and 1920s, the centre of the film industry had been France. Like Las Vegas, Hollywood has constructed a mystique of celebrity and hedonism, but it’s all for show. We see the artifice of sets, turning a recording studio into a four-walled backdrop framed by lights and personnel. Betty (Naomi Watts) asks Rita to show her a tour of the real Hollywood. But there is no real Hollywood – expensive condos, stars on the Walk of Fame, the Chinese Theater – simultaneously tourist destination and label for big budget industry and aesthetic.
Lynch has lived in Los Angeles since his five-year process of producing Eraserhead (1977), yet speaking to NYRock, he rejects the notion of being a part of the Hollywood system. Eraserhead was largely made with funding from the AFI, whilst films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive exist thanks to funding from MK2 and Canal+.
But this has never been a hindrance to Lynch. As we see in The Art Life (2016), Lynch is primarily an artist, feeling a “creative feeling” of “freedom” in LA. Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a director experiencing difficulties communicating his vision for The Sylvia North Story (2003), may feel like a Lynch analogue, yet Gordon Cole (as Lynch himself) and Agent Cooper speak to his quirkiness more. Mulholland Drive presents Hollywood as business, with suitcases and backroom deals; Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson) watches over as a man in the shadows.
Betty’s actress dream carries artificiality. Arriving at the airport with Irene, moving from Deep River, Ontario, her happiness as Irene enthuses she’ll be watching for her “on the big screen!” carries inauthenticity and naiveté. On the escalator, they pass an idealised painting of the city. In the taxi, Irene and her husband look to each other and smile, laughter given a sinister edge as the camera lingers almost too long.
Auditioning for a role, Betty constructs a persona. Lynch opens on her and Rita rehearsing a script they openly acknowledge as a series of clichés, threatening Rita with a dinner knife. In its intensity, Lynch frames this sequence as though it were a real domestic argument between the two, fooling the audience with the artificiality of cinema. To find reality between actor and character becomes compounded.
Wally’s film is a passion project of the old guard, making his first film in 20 years, rather than celebrating new voices. Betty re-performs her scene, recontextualised from lesbian femininity to male privilege. Woody, performing the role of Chuck, manipulates Betty, using acting as an excuse to gratify his own needs. Betty plays to this, heightening the sexuality whilst delivering words between kisses, eliciting the casting director’s glee. Betty succeeds in Hollywood because she is sexual.
The studio mandates the actress be recast for The Sylvia North Story, judging acting ability through a mere still photograph. As a director, Adam elicits Camilla, turning his star into a wife-to-be, using his directorial power to overstep boundaries to teach her how to kiss an actor on set.
Alongside his explorations of female identity with Dorothy in Blue Velvet (1986) and Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (1990-91), Lynch uses Mulholland Drive to explore the contradictions of female identity. Identity formation is universal: how we perceive our identity comes from our influences and situation. Betty and Rita carry a duality between two personalities of existence, mirrored by Diane and Camilla later on. Rita is introduced as a blank slate and femme fatale, suffering amnesia following the car crash. Like with Vertigo (1958) and Phoenix (2014), where the male character constructs their idealised woman, Mulholland Drive concerns itself with the oscillation of female form through the figure of Diane Selwyn, actress and waitress.
Lynch’s women are anachronistic, creating a Los Angeles out of time. As Lynch relates to Chris Rodley, LA still carries a sense of “the old golden age”. Like our own lives, the present is “elusive”, with “opportunities to relive the past.” In a noir-ish sensibility, Rita adopts her persona after a poster of Gilda (1946), constructing a red dress out of a pair of towels. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Rita Hayworth is a sex symbol and something to live for whilst in prison. Yet Gilda exhibits power over her sexuality, in command of her cigarette.
Inescapable from female identity is female sexuality. In Fire Walk with Me, Lynch creates a tragic portrait of teenage sexual abuse, whilst Blue Velvet tackles male dominance and BDSM, yet falls victim to the male gaze. In her essay Desire, Outcast: Locating Queer Adolescence, Clara Bradbury-Rance compares Mulholland Drive to the psychosexuality of Black Swan (2010), through its “sensationalized episodes of lesbian sex” signifying a “climactic transition point from innocence to experience or from disorientation to identity”. Sexuality, in other words, becomes a plot device to coming of age. Betty and Rita’s sexuality never feels authentic, but performance; fallen into it in a moment of ecstasy, with no chemistry beforehand.
As Diane tearfully masturbates, Lynch tries to create a reality of sexuality. Yet where Lynch presents Diane as scorned lover, caught between the conflict of heterosexual marriage, it will never carry the power of the marital conflict of Carol (2015), written by a lesbian and directed by a gay man, Todd Haynes. Lynch’s lesbian sexuality is rarely titillating, yet feels as much a shallow aesthetic as Park Chan-wook’s idealised, painting-esque scissoring and cunnilingus in The Handmaiden (2016), another exploration of paradoxical mistaken female identities. Yet even Park attempts to question his own gaze.
Starting life as a TV pilot for ABC, in spite of its technical and thematic brilliance, Mulholland Drive still carries traces of the television format, feeling like Twin Peaks transposed to Los Angeles. The film is not so much a reimagining but expansion; most of the footage compiled for the 1999 pilot became the finished film. Though Twin Peaks is celebrated today, with a thriving fan culture and Showtime revival, it became met derisively following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s murderer, dropping from 20 to 5 million viewers. As a 1999 New Yorker article documents, although ABC conceived Mulholland Drive as event television and an antidote to the “plethora of sameness”, Lynch became met with setbacks through every stage of production, befuddling executives with the show’s ambiguities.
Whilst admiring the deep worlds and stories of soap operas, Lynch questioned the passivity of television. Executives questioned the age of his leads, whilst wanting to sanitise it of its language, violence, dog shit and cigarette smoking, at odds with desires for accessibility and commerciality, edited down to what Lynch described as a “sad, bad traffic accident”. The network scored the pilot a 3/10.
Though Twin Peaks’ narrative asides may have been criticised by both cast and viewers in the latter half of Season 2, Mulholland Drive’s side-narratives breathe life as an act of worldbuilding, creating an LA larger than the one we know. As Dan and Herb discuss business in Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd, it not only recalls the Double R Diner of Twin Peaks, but the diner sequence of Pulp Fiction (1994). Adam’s marital conflicts, forced out of his house by his wife as he discovers her with another lover, bathing her jewellery in paint in retaliation, adds little to our understanding of Adam as a character, yet its irreverence builds the film. As Joe and Ed attempt to murder Camilla, shooting a woman in the other room, a janitor, vacuum cleaner and blowing an electrical outlet in the process, the film devolves into a comedy of errors akin to the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996).
Yet Lynch sees no disconnect between these genres. As he describes to NYRock:
[Y]ou’re laughing in the morning and crying in the afternoon, and there’s a strange event after lunch. It’s just the way [life] is.
But the connections go deeper. The surreality of the cowboy prophesising, asking Adam who drives the buggy, is akin to the Log Lady. Mr. Roque isn’t so far removed from Anderson’s other infamous character, the Man from Another Place. Coco feels like an eccentric recurring character. As Dan reveals the fear of his “half-night” dreams of a man round the back of Winkie’s, it recalls Agent Cooper’s prescience of Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk with Me. As H. Perry Horton theorises in Film School Rejects, Club Silencio is the Black Lodge – noting the red curtains and an uncredited Sheryl Lee cameo.
Perhaps the greatest parallel is its lack of narrative finality. The blue key to the box is Lynch’s season hook; like with Laura Palmer, Lynch never knew who the murderer was until well into production. Speaking to Filmmaker, Lynch describes reformatting a close-ended narrative as a “beautiful experience”, as the ideas “came out of a kind of darkness and made themselves known.” Lynch’s infinite loop, playing in two halves and persuading the viewer to watch once more like a Groundhog Day (1993) gone awry, reminds us of another 2001 film, Donnie Darko, where time is manipulated beyond narrative comprehension. Twin Peaks continues to ask questions; when we become immersed in the Black Lodge at the end of Season 2, or the garmonbozia in Fire Walk with Me, Lynch doesn’t give answers, but questions. Lynch offers elusiveness; like life, we have no answers.
As Lynch tells Filmmaker, “a mystery is one of the most beautiful things in the world”; like a Hitchcockian detective story, he appeals to our intuition, as our mind constructs its own version of events, rejecting a singular audience experience. Like the red curtains of the performance stage of Club Silencio, Lynch sees the physical setting of the theater as an experience to immerse oneself in.
Through Club Silencio and Angelo Badalamenti as composer, Lynch reminds us of the power of music. As he describes to Filmmaker, film is music, with its own melodies and harmonies. Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish-language performance of Crying in Club Silencio’s cabaret show is shattering, as beautiful and as haunting as In Heaven in Eraserhead or Isabella Rossellini and Julee Cruise’s stage performances in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Just like cinema, music is revealed as a facile construction; there is no band. Yet even when the trick is revealed, it loses none of its power. As Adam Nayman describes in Little White Lies, Mulholland Drive “inhabits its chosen medium while reminding us how ephemeral it is in the end”.
With the revival of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s earlier works have a chance to reach new audiences. Mulholland Drive has been highly celebrated as one of the greatest films of the 21st century. These determinations always seem a little too far for me, forgetting far more radical or affecting films. Yet Mulholland Drive remains powerful viewing, an essential part of Lynch’s canon.